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The Kahului Black-Out and Customer Service

February 9, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

During a recent rainstorm in Kahului, I dashed into a large national-chain supermarket and bought two small steaks for my spouse C.’s flavorful and wonderful beef stroganoff.

Driving through the sheets of rain, I realized that I had never been in such rain since we arrived on Maui last September.

Upon reaching home, I changed out of my clothes into shorts and T-Shirt, and began my terrible habit of channel-surfing. Then spouse C. called out to me. When I came to her, she pointed to the steaks: the reddish-fresh tingle was gone. Instead, the steaks were covered in a grayish, brown sheen. Not good. I did the atavistic check and sniffed the meat (I felt like a dog), and there was a slight sour aroma. Not good at all.

Alarmed, I called the supermarket, and explained excitedly about the meat and color (and wondered out loud if the steaks could give us food poisoning) to H. of Customer Service, who said “Please wait”, and forwarded me to a gruff female voice of the “Meat Department”. At this point I was frustrated, since I dislike repeating myself, and asked for Ms. Meat to speak to Heather and then respond to my question. Ms. Meat said that she was “busy”, too. At this point my phone was dis-connected.

When I called again (angry and frustrated), I spoke to H. She uttered her revelation: “We had a black-out today, so the meat had no refrigeration for a while”. I felt transported back several hours before when the lights went out in our office and the air-conditioning did not return for some time. She continued and said that if the “meat” smelled “bad”, do not eat it. Of course, that was very easy to say for her at a huge cavernous building filled with meat, chicken, fish, and vegetables, and I was home, eight miles from the supermarket, with nothing for dinner. I asked to speak to her “manager”.

Mr. Manager got on the phone, and said that the store had a rule that after a “black-out”, if the electricity was out no more than two hours (that is, no refrigeration), the “meat” was “OK” to eat. But if the meat “looked bad”, we should not eat it.

Then Mr. Manager asked me – in the automatic way contemporary managers are now trained – whether there was “anything else” he could do for me. I asked if he could deliver two steaks to me in Kihei, since I had no dinner. He responded that he was “alone” in the store, and therefore he could not leave the store to deliver the items. What else he was doing in the store was not stated.

I realized that by asking him to “deliver” the food that question was a sign that I had lived in Japan. We had several instances in Tokyo where the item that we ordered at McDonalds and was not in our bag was delivered to us via a restaurant cashier on a bicycle or an item that was damaged or unusable was replaced by a manager who ran from the store to our home with the items and profusely apologize to us (Tokyo is a city of neighborhoods).

The old saying “the customer is always right” is carried to an extreme in Japan (the Japanese elevate this to the “customer is God”. To any American reading this, my true experiences in Japan may sound so unbelievable that the reader may call over her or his spouse and read this paragraph out-loud, and indulge in eye-rolling and laughter.

However, I am always surprised at American restaurants (in Seattle or New York or Los Angeles) that would not take any money for a dish that was not to my liking (in Honolulu once the chicken picatta was drowning in astringent lemony gravy). The waiter or waitress would have the chef cook another dish, and I am usually satisfied. This happened recently in Honolulu – the manager even gave us a dessert for free. This action is usually described as resolving the problem at the lowest possible level, and not escalating the issue upwards. Some hotels extend "empowerment" to staff members to fix customer problems. For example, a front desk manager – confronted by an irate guest -- can give out room upgrades or a $100 free dinner voucher or fresh cookies and milk for children (plus free Movies for a night) – without asking for his or her manager’s permission.

In contrast, in Japan, I have had difficulties returning a dish in a land where the best dinners are done “oma-kase” or according to the chef’s decisions and seasonable menu. In Japanese culture the chef is presumed to “know” more about culinary tastes and preparation than a mere dinner guest would ever know. Following this philosophy my request for a “returned” dish price at a Japanese restaurant to be removed from the final tab is usually debated and leaves a bad feeling among all.

Mr. Store Manager did invite me to return to the store and get my money back for the steaks. I did so, yet the store should review its “black-out” policy – plus its Customer Service interaction, but I have to realize that I am in a different place.


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